Hangul Celluloid - Interview with director John H. Lee:
John H.Lee -이재한
(aka: Lee Jae-han)
Birthplace: Seoul, South Korea
Occupation: Director and Screen Writer
Filmography: The Killer (pre-production); 71: Into the Fire (2010); Saying Good-bye, One Day (2010); A Moment to Remember (2004); History of BoA 2000-2002 (2003); The Cut Runs Deep (1999)
Hangul Celluloid: ‘71 – Into The Fire’ has some astounding combat and battle scenes. Were there any financial constraints which led you to shoot scenes in a particular way, or did you have carte blanche to film the war scenes exactly as you had envisioned prior to shooting the film?
John H. Lee: It’d be a director’s dream to have “carte blanche” on a film. Often times, economy dictates style. I didn’t have enough resources to satisfy my vision. I was not able to stick to my storyboards and I had to make up a lot of things as I went along. Spontaneity played a lot into achieving certain things. You want seven explosions, but the sun's going down and the VFX guy says you can only get three if you want this shot today. Things like that… But I always knew what kind of emotional effect I wanted on every shot, scene, or sequence… It's all about juggling with variables in the equation and doing the best you can. Give all you've got.
Hangul Celluloid: ‘71 – Into The Fire’ has already achieved a lot of success outside Korea. Are you surprised by the film’s popularity with worldwide audiences?
John H. Lee: Am I surprised? I don't think a filmmaker expects his film to fail. Whenever I helm a project, I think about the universality of the story. I search for stories with universal appeal… I can say I'm pleasantly surprised by how it's well-received worldwide. I am happy that this film, to a certain degree, helped recognize the issues of the "Forgotten War"—the Korean War, that is.
Hangul Celluloid: Was your decision to make a film about the 71 student soldiers influenced by the fact that 2010 was the 60th anniversary of the start of the Korean War? Did more current events regarding North and South Korea also influence your decision?
John H. Lee: The producers were adamant that we release the film before June 25th. I personally didn't think it was important to release it prior to the exact month and date when the war began. I just wished I had more time cutting the film. The current events didn't influence my decision. Last 60 years or so, the frictions between North and South never stopped and still continue to this date. It's quite depressing…
Hangul Celluloid: At the end of the film, the credits are accompanied by clips of veterans from the battle talking about their experiences and fellow student soldiers. I feel that this adds greatly to the emotional resonance and moving aspects of the film. At what point in the production process did you decide to include the veterans’ testimonies?
John H. Lee: I think it was during the final shooting week of the film, while getting my mind ready for editing.
Hangul Celluloid: You’re probably best known for writing and directing the hugely successful (and wonderful) ‘A Moment To Remember’. At the start of the Director’s Cut of the film there is a statement confirming that you created both the Theatrical Version and the Director’s Cut. What led to the decision to make the Director’s Cut?
John H. Lee: I don't know if it's a curse or a blessing, but all my films clock at around 2 hours and 30 minutes. Sometimes, I was successful in condensing them, often times not. When I was putting out the theatrical cut for "A Moment to Remember," I was held accountable by the fact that I had initially promised the production and distribution companies that I will give them the film under 1 hour and 57 minutes. Even when it was well-received in the theatres, I remember still thinking to myself that it had lots of emotion but lacked intellect. The director's cut, for me, achieves the balance between the emotion and intellect. I recently was involved in the Blu-ray remastering of the director's cut and was reminded how sad the film was. My assistant and the colorist sitting next to me were crying the whole time!
Hangul Celluloid: Casting actress Son Ye-jin in the role of Kim Su-jin in ‘A Moment To Remember’ was, to my mind, one of the best casting choices ever made in a romance/melodrama. Did you have her in mind for the role before the casting process began?
John H. Lee: Believe it or not, I actually had someone else in mind! I first gave the script to my first choice, Lee Na-young. I had her and Irene Jacob's image in my head while writing the screenplay. I gave Lee Na-young two weeks to decide, but she could not decide, so I decided for her. On the 15th day I gave the screenplay to Son Ye-jin, and she gladly took it, almost right away. (Lee Na-young ended up doing "Someone Special.") Son Ye-jin was not a big star at the time, and a lot of industry sceptics and insiders, until the film opened in theatres, thought it was a total miscasting! They thought she was too young for the part and too short for Jung Woo-sung. They said Jung and Son's faces don't match. You won't believe the things that I heard while making the film. I experienced more controversy for casting T.O.P. in "Into the Fire." But in both cases, I proved them wrong… I think Son Ye-jin matured and evolved into a total artist while shooting "A Moment to Remember." She worked really hard to nail the character. We always had lots of discussions before and after the shootings. In the end, it turned out to be a perfect casting, and her career really took off from there. I am truly happy for her.
Hangul Celluloid: Was the story of such a young woman diagnosed with Alzheimer’s’ disease based on real-life research?
John H. Lee: Yes, there are some rare cases like that in real life. It's partially based on research.
Hangul Celluloid: ’71 – Into the fire’ is based on historical events and has references to one of the student soldiers having been too poor to be able to go to school, while in ‘A Moment To Remember’ the social standing of Su-jin’s family is contrasted with that of Chul-soo’s family. How important do you feel social commentary is within your films’ themes?
John H. Lee: It's quite important to me. All my films deal with ethics and morality. It cannot be done well without an acute understanding of the society in general. That's how one attains his insights.
Hangul Celluloid: Your first major film was ‘The Cut Runs Deep’, a USA film with an English language soundtrack. Did you already have plans back then to write and direct South Korean language films?
John H. Lee: Not really. And I never, in my wildest dreams, thought that I'd do a Japanese language film ("Sayonara Itsuka") either! My next film is back in English. A film noir, titled "The Killer." My filmography is quite unusual, and I think it has a lot to do with my upbringing, having experienced life both in the east and the west. I think I will continue to make films that go beyond language and culture.
Hangul Celluloid: It was fairly widely reported that you were to direct a 3D English language remake of John Woo’s "The Killer," starring Jung Woo-sung. Is that still the case and, if so, can you tell us a little about it?
John H. Lee: It all started when John Woo first saw "A Moment to Remember." The film was referred to him by his partner, Terence Chang. The next thing I know, I was on a plane to Beijing to meet Mr. Woo himself. I was chosen as the one to resurrect John Woo's most beloved child. It's still in the development stage. We have a very good chance of shooting it this year. Casting is not set in stone yet.
Hangul Celluloid: Several other South Korean directors (including Park Chan-wook and Kim Ji-woon) are making English language films in the USA. How well do you feel Korean film aesthetics fit with Hollywood filmmaking?
John H. Lee: I think Korean film aesthetics have a very good competitive edge on the world stage. But sensibility plays a very important part in making a film, not only in terms of creating arresting images, but directing actors as well. Having a grasp of the language and creating a singular, cohesive tone for the story is also something to watch for…
Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions.